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In this image from video, Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president.; Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the COVID-19 health equity task force; Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 Response Team, appear on screen during a White House briefing Wednesday on the Biden administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. White House via AP

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration launched its new level-with-America health briefings Wednesday with a projection that as many as 90,000 more in the U.S. will die from the coronavirus in the next four weeks – a sobering warning as the government strains to improve delivery and injection of vaccines.

The tone of the hourlong briefing was in line with President Biden’s promise to be straight with the nation about the state of the outbreak that has already claimed more than 425,000 U.S. lives. It marked a sharp contrast to what had become the Trump show in the past administration, when public health officials were repeatedly undermined by a president who shared his unproven ideas without hesitation.

The deaths projection wasn’t much different from what Biden himself has said, but nonetheless served as a stark reminder of the brutal road ahead.

The new briefings, set for three times a week, are part of Biden’s attempt to rebuild trust and mobilize Americans to follow health guidance on the coronavirus and to break down public resistance to the vaccine.

Wednesday’s briefing was conducted virtually, with no shortage of technical glitches and audio gaps. Administration officials appeared on Zoom from separate locations, in keeping with the Biden administration’s efforts to model best practices for safe work habits in the pandemic.

Read the full story here.

Dr. Fauci: Vaccines can adjust to virus variants

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci says there’s reason to be concerned about the impact of some coronavirus mutations on vaccines, but scientists have plenty of options for adjustments to maintain the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments.

Anthony Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks with reporters on Jan. 21 at the White House. Associated Press/Alex Brandon

The government’s top infectious disease expert says there’s particular concern about the so-called South African variant, because lab tests have shown that it can diminish the protective power of the vaccines approved to date.

However, Fauci stressed the level of protection provided was still well within what he called the “cushion” of vaccine effectiveness.

Fauci says one vaccine that’s still in testing is being measured for effectiveness against the South African variant and another strain that has emerged in Brazil. He called that a promising development.

CDC says U.S. may reach 514,000 deaths by Feb. 20

WASHINGTON — White House Coronavirus Coordinator Jeff Zients is saying in the Biden administration’s first formal briefing on the pandemic that officials will always hew to the science and level with the public.

Joe Biden

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, speaks during an event in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 8. Associated Press/Susan Walsh

Rochelle Walensky, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says her agency’s latest forecast indicates the U.S. will record between 479,000 to 514,000 deaths by Feb. 20.

Zients says the federal Department of Health and Human Services is acting Wednesday to make more professionals available to administer vaccinations. The government will authorize nurses and doctors who have retired to administer vaccines, and professionals licensed in one state will be able to administer shots in other states. Such measures are fairly standard in health emergencies.

The U.S. leads the world with 25.4 million confirmed cases and more than 425,000 deaths.

China rolls out anal swab coronavirus tests, saying it’s more accurate than throat method

SEOUL, South Korea – Months-long lockdowns. Entire city populations herded through the streets for mandatory testing. The people of China could be forgiven for thinking they had seen it all during the coronavirus pandemic.

But now they face a new indignity: the addition of anal swabs – yes, you read that right – to the testing regimen for those in quarantine.

Chinese state media outlets introduced the new protocol in recent days, prompting widespread discussion and some outrage. Some Chinese doctors say the science is there. Recovering patients, they say, have continued to test positive through samples from the lower digestive tract days after nasal and throat swabs came back negative.

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Workers in protective suits take a swab for a coronavirus test in Shenyang in northeastern China on Jan. 11. Yao Jianfeng/Xinhua via Associated Press

Yet for many, it seemed a step too far in government intrusions after a year and counting of a dignity-eroding pandemic.

“Everyone involved will be so embarrassed,” one user in Guangdong province said on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, on Wednesday. In a Weibo poll, 80% of respondents said they “could not accept” the invasive method.

Even Chinese doctors in support of the new tests said the method’s inconvenience meant it only made sense to use in select groups, such as at quarantine centers.

“If we add anal swab testing, it can raise our rate of identifying infected patients,” Li Tongzeng, an infectious-disease specialist at Beijing You’an Hospital, said on state-run broadcaster CCTV on Sunday. “But of course considering that collecting anal swabs is not as convenient as throat swabs, at the moment only key groups such as those in quarantine receive both.”

The U.K., facing a scary coronavirus variant, is running a high-stakes, real-world vaccine experiment

LONDON — Britain is now, essentially, one big, high-stakes science experiment.

It is putting multiple vaccines to the test amid one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, propelled by a variant of the virus that is more contagious and possibly more deadly than the original.

Britain is ahead of most countries in the vaccination race, but it is gambling that it can extend the interval between two doses, to stretch limited supplies.

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Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a vial of the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a coronavirus vaccination center, in London on Jan. 25. Stefan Rousseau via Associated Press

And while those vaccinations are underway, Britain is trying to determine how rigid and long a shutdown must be to inhibit the virus as it has evolved. The variant now dominant here has been found in at least 50 other countries, including the United States.

So, pay attention, world. The findings that emerge from here in the coming weeks and months will have critical implications for you, too.

As of Tuesday, more than 6.8 million people in the United Kingdom had received the first of two doses of a coronavirus vaccine — either from Pfizer-BioNTech or the homegrown Oxford-AstraZeneca jab — and 472,000 others had gotten the second booster shot, according to the government’s daily summary. That’s more inoculations per capita than the United States or any other country in Europe. (The Moderna vaccine is authorized in the UK, too, but won’t arrive until March.)

At the same time, Britain has surpassed 100,000 dead, and on many days, it records the highest per capita death toll from the coronavirus on the planet, as it desperately tries to keep its hospitals from being overwhelmed.

Asked by a reporter what went so wrong, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a Tuesday evening news briefing: “I’m deeply sorry for every life that has been lost, and, of course, as prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything the government has done. What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could and continue to do everything that we can.”

The entire country is now in its third week of its third national shutdown, with no idea when strict stay-at-home orders and school closures will be eased — and by how much.

April may be overly optimistic, scientists warn.

Yet even as it struggles, Britain remains a scientific powerhouse, with some of the best infectious-disease surveillance and modeling in the world, coupled with a cutting-edge consortium tracking the emergence of new variants. It also has a well-run national health-care system, which is collecting data available to researchers.

British scientists reasonably expect to be among the first to answer some of the big outstanding questions of the pandemic: How well do vaccines, shown to be safe and effective in clinical trials, work in the real world? Do they save lives? Lessen disease? Block transmission? Will vaccines alone be enough to end shutdowns?

Vaccine rollout skips TSA screeners, air-traffic controllers

They’re essential workers performing critical safety work and have been assigned priority designation to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

Yet tens of thousands of airport security screeners, air-traffic controllers and federal accident investigators who must report to work in spite of the virus ravaging the U.S. haven’t gotten the shot and aren’t sure how and when they will.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Jennifer Homendy, one of five members of the National Transportation Safety Board. “The vaccine rollout from my point of view has been mismanaged.”

A TSA agent wearing a protective mask screens travelers at a checkpoint at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago in June. Bloomberg /Patrick T. Fallon

The problem, according to multiple officials, is that the shots are being delivered by scores of state and local health agencies, which are using varying standards for who should be given priority. In some cases, employees have been told they qualify for the vaccine, only to be directed back to their employer after saying they work for the federal government, Homendy said.

Nowhere has the impact been more severe than among the roughly 50,000 TSA Transportation Screening Officers. So far in the pandemic, more than 6,100 TSA employees, most of them airport screeners, have contracted coronavirus and 14 have died, according to TSA.

Hydrick Thomas, president of the American Federation of Government Employees TSA Council 100 union, said he has fielded repeated complaints from his members about the lack of access.

“TSA has been pushed to the back of the line for some reason,” Thomas said. “We are protecting the country. When it comes down to protecting the employees, they are very lackadaisical.”

About 14,000 air-traffic controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration have also been required to work in the close confines of airport towers and windowless control centers across the country. So far, more than 900 at 313 facilities have contracted coronavirus, according to the agency.

Philadelphia let ‘college kids’ distribute vaccines. The result was a ‘disaster,’ volunteers say.

Philadelphia is home to some of the most venerated medical institutions in the country. Yet when it came time to set up the city’s first and largest coronavirus mass vaccination site, officials turned to the start-up Philly Fighting COVID, a self-described “group of college kids” with minimal health-care experience.

Chaos ensued.

Seniors were left in tears after finding that appointments they’d made through a bungled sign-up form wouldn’t be honored. The group switched to a for-profit model without publicizing the change and added a privacy policy that would allow it to sell users’ personal data. One volunteer alleged that the 22-year-old CEO had pocketed vaccine doses. Another described a “free-for-all” where unsupervised 18- and 19-year-olds vaccinated one another and posed for photos.

People wait in an observation area after receiving coronavirus vaccine at the mass-vaccination site set up by Philly Fighting COVID at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Jan. 15. Washington Post/Rachel Wisniewski

Now, the city has cut ties with Philly Fighting COVID, and prosecutors are looking into the “concerning” allegations.

The group offered a partial apology Tuesday while defending the switch to for-profit status, and CEO Andrei Doroshin told Philadelphia magazine that claims he had helped himself to leftover vaccine doses were “baseless.”

Just a few weeks ago, Philly Fighting COVID was receiving glowing coverage from the likes of NBC’s “Today.” The group had a compelling story: Doroshin, a graduate student at Drexel University, helped orchestrate an effort to use 3-D printers to make free face shields for hospital workers at the start of the pandemic. By summer, he and his friends were running their own pop-up testing sites citywide.

But as Philadelphia magazine reported, the group’s “executive team” lacked anyone with a medical degree or advanced degree in public health. Doroshin himself listed a résumé that included stints teaching a high school film class, producing videos of people longboarding and practicing parkour, and founding a nonprofit that, according to Philadelphia magazine, “mostly consisted of a meme-heavy Twitter account, some minor community lobbying, and a fundraiser with a $50,000 goal that netted $684.”

Read the full story here.

E.U. feud with vaccine maker bursts into the open

The high-stakes clash between the E.U. and vaccine maker AstraZeneca intensified Wednesday when E.U. officials accused the firm of withdrawing from a planned meeting to discuss cuts to its supply.

Dana Spinant, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, said that AstraZeneca had canceled the Wednesday meeting with the health steering group. A company spokesperson later denied that AstraZeneca pulled out of the talks.

“We can confirm we will be attending the E.U. talks,” spokesperson Jenny Hursit said in an email. It’s “not accurate to say we’ve pulled out,” she said.

AztraZeneca, a British-Swedish firm, said last week that production delays would limit the number of doses supplied to E.U. nations, prompting a backlash from European leaders who threatened the company with legal action. Officials this week stepped up pressure on pharmaceutical companies operating in the E.U. and said vaccine makers could suffer stricter export controls.

AstraZeneca and U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which developed a coronavirus vaccine with German biotech firm BioNTech, have said that reduced production capacity could lead to delivery disruptions.

On Wednesday, though, French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi announced it would produce Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine to make the 125 million vaccine doses allocated for the European Union.

 


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